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Seattle Blackmouth

Seattle Blackmouth

Here's your guide to the best blackmouth salmon fishing in Puget Sound this winter.

Photo by Terry W. Sheely

By Doug Rose

About 20 years ago, I spent a weekend in Seattle with friends who lived in the University District. Early on Monday morning, I rode the bus downtown, where I could catch the ferry to Bainbridge Island and my car. Winter and rain had thinned the normal throng of tourists at Pike Place Market, and I ate a quiet breakfast upstairs at Lowell's Restaurant, watching the rusty hulks of freighters off Harbor Island and green and white ferries trading back and forth across the sound. After I finished eating, I walked along the waterfront toward the Coleman Ferry Dock.

The city still had a frayed, down-at-the-heels funkiness then, as this was before the Microsoft/Starbucks era would transform downtown Seattle into a playground for suburban matrons and tourists. It was a place where cab drivers, professors and commercial anglers rubbed elbows in greasy spoons, and used-book stores, pawn shops and strip clubs dominated First Avenue. Also common was a cluster of anglers fishing for blackmouth salmon on the pier near the ferry dock.

"Hey, I got one," I heard as I approached the dock that drizzly morning. A small, grizzled man held onto a throbbing rod. He wore a navy watch cap and down coat that was half duct tape. The crowd surrounding him was typical. There were guys who didn't look any different than the folks you see at Puget Sound boat ramps, a couple of Native Americans, two old men with cigarettes seemingly glued to their lips, and several Asian-Americans speaking a language I had never heard.

"Take it easy," one of the English-speaking bystanders offered. The fish stayed hidden for a while but eventually thrashed the surface. It was a 5- or 6-pound blackmouth. Someone dipped a ring net toward the water.

"Not yet," the angler cautioned.

The fish accounted for itself admirably, but one of the men finally slipped a net under it, and soon the salmon was flopping on the dock.


While the waters off Seattle are the birthplace of Washington's salmon sport fishery, much of the summer salmon fishing since that time has shifted to Neah Bay and Sekiu to the west, MidChannel Bank to the north, and Anderson and Fox islands in the south. And yet Marine Area 10, which includes the King and Kitsap county sides of Puget Sound, is holding on as a popular and productive winter blackmouth fishery.


There are a number of explanations for how the word "mooching" came to describe the practice of fishing a herring on a light sinker beneath a drifting boat. Everyone agrees, however, that the term, coined by Japanese immigrant anglers who perfected the technique in the 1920s and '30s, originated on Puget Sound's Elliot Bay.


Before then, trolling was the standard Seattle-area angling method and involved pulling spoons and plugs. The Japanese anglers discovered that cut-plug or herring spinners were deadly when fished deeply and given a slow spin by the current or oars.


The Tengu Derby became a winter highlight for Elliot Bay moochers until Japanese-Americans were interred during World War II. Fortunately, the derby was revived in 1946 and has run continuously since.


Puget Sound's oldest salmon derby, Tengu anglers sample an older, more relaxed way of salmon fishing -- one in which single-action reels and carefully cut herring come into their own on rowed dories. The derby occurs on weekends through January, and mooching is the only method permitted. Fishing is confined to the waters of Elliot Bay, inside a line from Alki Point to Fourmile Rock.


Derby tickets are available at the Seacrest Boathouse and Line's Tackle. -- Doug Rose


At the mouth of the Duwamish River and within the shadows of Seattle office towers, is Elliot Bay. It was in these protected waters decades ago that Japanese anglers perfected "mooching," the technique consisting of fishing a slow-spinning herring near the bottom. Anglers still mooch for feeder chinook in these waters, but trolling is increasing in popularity.

Most Elliot Bay blackmouth are in the 4- to 10-pound range. The south side of the bay and Duwamish Head tend to turn out the most fish. Trollers also work the 100- to 120-foot break between Magnolia Bluff and West Point. Like most blackmouth areas, Elliot Bay tends to be a morning bite. The Don Armeni boat ramp in West Seattle is a popular fee launch.

To the north, Crescent-shaped Shilshole Bay sprawls between West and Meadow points and is another proven destination for winter chinook anglers. Shilshole is popular with moochers and trollers, and typically holds up through late winter. As in Elliot Bay, moochers usually fish closer to shore, while trollers work deeper breaks and ledges. The boat ramp at Shilshole near Golden Gardens Park, which is also a fee launch, is open year 'round.

Jefferson Head, in Port Madison's northeast corner, is Kitsap County's most popular blackmouth water. It is accessible from public launches at Kingston and Suquamish, as well from Shilshole for anglers who run across Puget Sound on calm days.

Jeff Head veterans prefer an outgoing tide, with moochers working fairly close to the point and trollers concentrating on the 100- to 120-foot shelf, as well as north of the head. On the south side of Port Madison, Point Monroe also turns out winter fish, as do Skiff Point and Yeomalt Point. They are accessible from ramps at Fay Bainbridge State Park on Bainbridge Island or from Suquamish.

The relatively protected waters between Bainbridge Island and the northwest corner of Vashon Island often turn out good blackmouth numbers. Manchester and Port Orchard, which are, respectively, on the east and west ends of Rich Passage, usually contain schools of herring, which attract blackmou


Fort Ward State Park on Bainbridge Island and the new ramp at Manchester provide launch facilities. Manchester is also a good staging area to fish Allen Bank, a productive shoal between the south end of Blake Island and Vashon Island. Blackmouth are also taken at Restoration Point, on Bainbridge Island's southeast tip; it is accessible from Manchester and an easy run from Alki.

Boats are as integral to saltwater salmon fishing for most Puget Sound anglers as Penn reels and plug-cut herring. Indeed, Washington registers more boats than any state except Florida. Many anglers also fish for salmon from piers and bulkheads, and while no one claims that shore-bound anglers take nearly as many fish, persistent anglers do catch salmon.

Seattle-area anglers can fish from three piers: Elliot Bay Fishing Pier, downtown on Pier 86 near the grain terminals; the Seacrest Pier in West Seattle; and the Shilshole Marina Dock. West Sound anglers fish from the Harper Pier, which is near the community of Southworth. It is also accessible from Seattle via the Fauntleroy/Southworth Ferry. Additional pier access is available at the Brownsville and Illahee piers near Port Orchard, and at Indianola and Suquamish on Port Madison.

Pier anglers employ different tackle than those in boats. Buzz Bombs and small Point Wilson Darts are popular, although herring fished beneath floats seems to account for most of the blackmouth. The bait is usually rigged on a 6-foot leader tied to a mooching sinking beneath a 3- to 4-inch diameter Styrofoam float. The bait's depth is regulated by a barrel knot stopper tied on the main line above the float, and sequins are used to prevent line wear on the float/monofilament connection.

Anglers without boats can consistently catch blackmouth by booking trips on charters. Guided trips appeal to anglers who like to take a few salmon each year but would rather not bother with the expense, maintenance and skills associated with boat ownership. It is also a good strategy for entertaining visitors who want to catch a salmon, because success rates are high. Keith Robbins' Spot Tail Guide Service (206-283-6680) offers mooching trips, while John Kizer's Puget Sound Salmon Charters (253-565-6598) trolls and mooches. Kizer and Tom Nelson's Web site ( is one of Washington's most informative sport fishing sites and contains a wealth of information on fishing Central Puget Sound.

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